As a criminal defense lawyer, I often receive frantic calls. A family member was just hauled away by the cops, or the news just said the caller has been indicted, or the police are at the door with a search warrant. But one call gave me pause: "The sheriff is on his way to my house," sobbed the woman on the phone, "and he's going to arrest me unless I pay the debt collector. What should I do?"
I've received similar versions of this call since then, and they all end the same way. The sheriff never comes and the debt collector—if he isn't just an outright fraud—lays low before calling a few days later with more threats and demands.
I didn't know about this side of debt collection before working with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. But then one Saturday morning I met Sandra, who had come to AVLF for help. She was being harassed by debt collectors for a supposedly unpaid store credit card. Sandra thought she had paid it off but wasn't sure, so she asked them to send her proof of the debt. Instead, they filed suit.
AVLF had my back. They sent me their in-house treatise on debt collection defense and put me in touch with an expert debt-defense attorney. Pulling together language from their resources and my research, I filed an answer and counterclaim the day before court and hand-delivered it to the debt collector's bewildered attorney on the courthouse steps. She offered a mutual dismissal of claims with prejudice.
As it turns out, the store that issued Sandra the credit card went bankrupt, and Sandra's debt was sold to a holding company that resold the debt to the collector. But the debt collector only bought Sandra's name and phone number; he didn't buy the paperwork proving that a debt existed. We still don't know if Sandra actually owed the store any money. But for Sandra, the calls stopped and that was a win.
I've continued working with AVLF, suing misbehaving landlords and demanding companies pay their workers. Two things remain constant for each case. First, you're a member of the AVLF team. Michael Lucas, who oversees many of these cases, is an expert co-counsel advising on strategy and technique. One weekend, he even sent me an excited text about different ways to serve process on my out-of-state defendant.
Second, resolving the clients' seemingly minor problems has a profound effect on their lives. A landlord releasing the security deposit is the difference between moving out of the moldy and cockroach-infested apartment or suffering through another month.
In my criminal defense practice, I stand with the accused and fight for their freedom. With AVLF, I fight for the poor and oppressed until they're made whole. Please join me, and the hundreds of other volunteers, in this critical pursuit.
Ryan Locke is the founder and managing member of the Locke Law Firm, specializing in criminal defense.